TALES OF GRETNA
Elopements weren’t always to Gretna Green
We tend to think that elopements were only to Gretna Green. They didn’t have to be. The same marriage laws applied throughout Scotland. However, Gretna and villages just over the Border did make something of a business of quick and clandestine marriages.
In The Solway Bride (previously Bride of the Solway), the marriage is arranged by ‘Bishop’ Lang in The King’s Head in Springfield, a tiny village only a few hundred yards from the border with England.
‘Bishop’ Lang was a real character of the time, looking and operating much as I have described. He encouraged eloping couples to believe that they needed him to take their declarations and to issue a kind of ‘marriage certificate’. Few of them would have had time to question him about it, especially if an irate father was close on their heels. So they took his advice, went through his ‘marriage ceremony’, got their certificate and – most importantly – paid Lang extremely well for his trouble.
And this (below) is what it looked like when I visited Springfield in 2004.
One other thing has changed at The King’s Head. When the drawing was done, it was recorded that a poem had been scratched on the window of the downstairs parlour. Sadly, it is no longer there. It’s not great literature, but it certainly captures the moment. Judge for yourself.
Transporting hope to clasp the charming Miss,
In her fair arms, to what unequalled bliss;
What joys I tasted, when, from Gretna’s shrine,
I drew the maid, and swore she should be mine.
I remember my mother telling me, when I was a child, that in Scotland couples were not married by a minister or registrar; they married themselves by making a declaration in front of witnesses.
When I was researching early 19th century Scottish marriage laws for The Solway Bride, I was delighted to find that my mother had been exactly right. While most marriages probably did take place in church (the kirk), the key was indeed the declaration by the couple themselves. In England, marriages had to be celebrated by a proper clergyman, in public, in the forenoon, but legal Scottish marriages could take place at any time or place, and did not require any religious presence at all. A couple could marry in Scotland without being over 21 and without parental consent.
The romantic elopement to Gretna Green, so often mentioned in stories such as Pride and Prejudice, was very much a fact. The English Establishment fought back by taking a very dim view of couples who had eloped to Scotland to marry. They might be totally ostracised though, if either of them was rich enough, or influential enough, their union would often be accepted.
Lady Jersey’s Gretna secrets
Sarah Anne Child, the banking heiress, eloped to Gretna with John Fane, Earl of Westmorland in 1782. She was about 18 and he was 23, an officer in the Guards and desperately in need of a fortune. Westmorland was impudent enough to ask Sarah Anne’s father, as if in jest, what he would do if he were in love with a girl and her father refused to let them marry. Sarah Anne’s father, who suspected nothing, rashly replied that he would run away with her and take her to Gretna Green!
Not surprisingly, the pair eloped soon after. Sarah Anne’s part was to drug her chaperone; Westmorland’s was to arrange horses all along the route so that their journey would be as swift as possible. Cunningly, he also hired every single horse at Shap so that his pursuers would find none available for that strenuous part of the journey. Eventually, with Sarah Anne’s father in hot pursuit, they did reach Scotland and were married.
Sarah Anne and Westmorland had 6 children, but Sarah Anne’s father never forgave their elopement. In revenge, he willed his fortune to their eldest daughter so that the Westmorland dynasty should not have it.
That eldest daughter, Sarah Sophia (Sally) Fane, married the Earl of Jersey and became one of the patronesses of Almack’s.
Sally and Jersey had 7 children. Their youngest daughter, Adela, also eloped to Gretna Green, in 1845, to marry Captain Charles Ibbetson of the 11th Hussars. Unlike her grandmother, Adela had the advantage of the railway and the pair reached Carlisle in comfort in less than a day. Ibbetson had even sent his carriage on ahead, by train, so that the couple could drive straight on to Gretna to be married.
Adela’s brother had set off in pursuit of them but met bad luck along the way. He tried to hire a special train to make up time, but that wheeze failed and he was stuck for hours at York. As a result, he arrived a full day after the newly-weds had left for Edinburgh and received, for his pains, a copy of their marriage certificate.
Lady Jersey was furious about the elopement and the ensuing scandal, even though her own mother had done the same. But the marriage could not be undone. With her parents’ consent, Adela and Ibbetson went through a second wedding ceremony, in church, in London.
But Lady Jersey, the Queen of London Society, had more than one Gretna skeleton in her cupboard after that.
TALES OF THE SOLWAY
Crossing the sands of the Solway
Looking across the Solway nowadays, from Scotland to England, I’m not sure that many of us would believe it was safe to make the journey on foot, as Ross and Cassie did in The Solway Bride. That darker grey strip, in the far distance, is England!
There were several routes across, but the shortest (shown above) was about a mile and a quarter long and ran from Annan Waterfoot on the Scottish side to Bowness in England. Although it could be very dangerous, it was much quicker than going all the way round by land, especially as the roads were notoriously bad and some of the rivers had to be crossed by ford.
An Archbishop crosses the Solway
Edward I of England (nicknamed ‘the hammer of the Scots’) used the Solway crossing to bring his army into Scotland in 1300. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Winchelsea, was sent after him by the Pope, and crossed the Solway carrying a letter instructing Edward to stop the war.
Archbishop Robert described the crossing afterwards:
“…I lurked in certain secret places near the sea, which divides England from Galloway, and taking the opportunity of the ebb of the tide, under the guidance of those who had a perfect knowledge where to cross, I made the passage… with the horses and their trappings, there being great danger in entering and departing, not more by reason of the depth of the water than by reason of the shore and the quicksands.”
Edward had already decided to retire from Scotland since he hadn’t managed to force the Scots to battle. So he wasn’t seen to disobey the Pope’s instruction on that occasion. However, he did not heed the spirit of the Pope’s letter; Edward’s wars against Scotland continued for years. If you’ve seen the film Braveheart, you’ll understand some of the background.
A Solway legend
My favourite Solway legend relates how, centuries ago, a Scottish raiding party crossed into England and stole the church bells from Bowness. Unfortunately for the thieves, they were not quick enough getting back across the Firth to evade their pursuers. The tide came galloping in and they had to drop the bells in order to save themselves. The Bowness bells sank in the sand and were never seen again. The English, in revenge, then stole two Scottish bells which were hung in the Bowness church.
Apparently, to this day, the Scots regularly ask the Bowness church to return their bells, and the English reply that they will happily do so, when their own bells come back from the sea. Even more romantically, we are told that sometimes, in the quiet of the evening as you look out across the golden beauty of the water under the setting sun, you can still hear the sound of the Bowness bells, ringing from the ‘Bell Pool’ in the middle of the Firth.
Avoiding the Exciseman, even if it was Robert Burns
One good reason for crossing by the Solway rather than the road was that the excisemen would be waiting on the land route to levy their duties. If you could nip across the Firth – by the wath or ford – you could probably avoid duty altogether.
Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scotland’s national poet, was also an exciseman. He knew that his business wasn’t popular, but he needed the money, as he freely admits:
“I do not know how the word ‘exciseman’, or still more opprobrious ‘gauger’, will sound on your ears. I have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on the subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations; and £50 a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow, is no bad settlement for a Poet.” (Letter to Ainslie, 1 Nov 1789)
“Our friend is … a great mixture of the Poet and the Exciseman. One day he sits down and writes a beautiful poem, and the next, seizes a cargo of tobacco from some unfortunate smuggler, or roups out some poor wretch, for selling liquors without a licence.”
The picture (left) shows the statue of Robert Burns in Dumfries.
ASSORTED REGENCY TALES
I had always understood that the Derby at Epsom was a race for three-year old colts and that fillies had their own race, the Oaks. In fact, although the Oaks is for fillies only, the Derby was instituted as a race for both colts and fillies. Some fillies actually competed in both the Derby and the Oaks, even though the races took place on consecutive days.
There must have been something pretty special about the filly Eleanor; not only was she the first filly to win the Derby, on 21st May 1801, but she went on to win the Oaks the next day. She wasn’t the only one, either. Another three fillies performed the double over the years. Men of the turf, like Kit in Marrying the Major, certainly had plenty of opportunities for losing their blunt at the Epsom meeting.
Nothing has changed there, but I find myself wondering if any of today’s racehorses would be up to the challenge of winning two blue riband races in two days.
Harriette Wilson, High Society Courtesan
Harriette Wilson’s memoirs, published in 1825, are a terrific read. They are not salacious, but they did create an enormous amount of scandal at the time, because she named Names. The Duke of Wellington may have told her to “publish and be damned”—Harriette herself does not use that phrase—but many of her other lovers preferred to pay to keep their names out of print.
Harriette was sharp and witty, and I found I could not resist putting some of her wicked words into the mouth of the incorrigible Lady Luce in Rake’s Reward.
Although I worked in London for many years, it took me a long time to appreciate just how much it had been altered during the nineteenth century. Many of the best-known London landmarks weren’t there in the Regency period.
Nelson may have died at Trafalgar in 1805, but he didn’t arrive on top of his column until almost 40 years later; what we know as Trafalgar Square housed the King’s Mews. And if you wanted an address with social cachet, it had to be Mayfair, since Belgravia (the area around the future Belgrave Square) was largely open fields until the 1820s.
My eyes were opened when I was researching the layout of the City of London for A Poor Relation. Isabella’s mad race against Amburley is based on Horwood’s London map of 1813. In some parts of the City, only Wren’s churches now survive.
To modern eyes, some of the churches seem to be in the strangest places in relation to the streets, but that’s because the streets have been moved! Mind you, the street names are still pretty telling—there’s still a Skinner Street near the Smithfield meat market, and a Fish Street Hill leading down to London Bridge and the Thames.
Both the Fleet and the Marshalsea served the same purposes: debtors mostly, plus smugglers and others convicted for financial offences–but, thanks to Charles Dickens, the Marshalsea tends to be the better known of the two.
The Fleet was on the north side of the river, not far from Newgate; the Marshalsea (in Southwark) was on the south side. Both were grim. They were closed in 1842.
According to an official report of 1814, the Warden of the Fleet believed it was the largest brothel in London, so it’s perhaps no wonder that Isabella, in A Poor Relation, felt moved to help the women and children there.
Not all the prisoners were housed in the prison, however. Until the 1820s, about a third of them on average would be in lodgings in the area around the prison (called the Rules) at a rent of two guineas a week. For that privilege, the prisoners also had to pay fees to the Warden, who was making about £1,000 a year from them. It’s interesting that people imprisoned for debt could afford to pay such fees.
Newgate prison housed felons condemned to death and was London’s place of public execution from 1783 onwards. The landlord of the Magpie and Stump, with windows overlooking the prison, used to charge enormous prices to wealthy people who wished to watch the executions in comfort, over breakfast. (There’s a graphic and gruesome description of an execution in Bernard Cornwell’s novel Gallows Thief.)
Both male and female felons were housed in Newgate, but there were debtors there, too. Conditions were, if anything, worse than other prisons; many died of gaol fever, a kind of typhoid. Elizabeth Fry made her name there and helped to get the law on prisons changed in the 1820s. Newgate was demolished in 1902 to make way for the Central Criminal Court (the Old Bailey).
Marriage by Special Licence
I had always assumed that a special licence was not too difficult to get. The prospective groom would just post off to see the local bishop, pay the fee, and voilà, a licence. I was wrong. I hadn’t appreciated the difference between marriage by licence and marriage by special licence.
Marriage by licence allowed a couple to dispense with the calling of banns which were cheap and seen as rather common. This (ordinary) licence was issued by an appropriate authority (usually ecclesiastical, such as a bishop) and was valid only within its jurisdiction. The couple still had to conform to all the other legal requirements by being married publicly, in the forenoon, by a regular clergyman.
To marry outside the normal hours, or in a private chapel, as Richard and Jamie did in A Penniless Prospect, required a special licence, granted at the discretion of the Archbishop of Canterbury. A special licence would mean a trip to the Faculty Office in London, making a sworn statement (the marriage allegation), and paying a very hefty fee, but if an immediate or private marriage was the only course open to a couple, they really had little choice.
Some Useful History Sites
BBC website with huge amount of historical information (though it’s no longer updated).
Two Nerdy History Girls
Ten years of blogs from authors Loretta Chase and Susan Holloway Scott on a wide and varying range of subjects. Just search their archive. No longer updated but a valuable resource.
How much is that?
Want to know the modern value of Kit’s gaming losses in Marrying the Major? This site will tell you that, and much more.
UK Primary Documents
Portal to primary documents for UK history from antiquity to the present day